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Youth climate movement wants to kick polluters out of COP26

Activist Ayisha Siddiqa talks about the campaign to sideline fossil fuel companies, the lack of inclusion at COP26, and the power of young people.

Ayisha Siddiqa and other activists march at the 2019 NYC youth climate strike. (Diane Greene Lent via Flickr)
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Ayisha Siddiqa is the co-founder of Polluters Out, a global youth movement that is calling for the fossil fuel industry to be banned from events and negotiations related to the United Nations climate treaty, formally known as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Siddiqa will be joining some of her fellow youth activists at the next negotiating session, COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, where the goal is to get global leaders to commit to dramatic climate action that will keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

We spoke with Siddiqa about the youth climate movement, her group’s goals, and what she wants to see come out of COP26. This excerpt from our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

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Ayisha Siddiqa

Maria Virginia Olano: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background? What led you to the work you do today?

Ayisha Siddiqa: There’s no one moment that made me the person I am in terms of climate work and why I got started, but rather many small moments that accumulated. I am Pakistani, I’m an immigrant to the United States, and that identity has deeply shaped the way I think about climate. 

There is so much pain associated with that region of the world that does not make it to the mainstream media or news. Climate impacts are devastating Pakistan already. I have lost family to climate pollution and toxic waste leaching to water sources. Our desert is one of the hottest places on planet Earth. And that is not even accounting for the impacts on infectious disease; malaria is spreading like wildfire in Southeast Asia, and we know it reproduces much faster in warmer temperatures. It’s a compounding problem, and I am trying to shed light on the impacts of climate change on the Global South with my activism. 

Olano: Tell me about Polluters Out and its mission. 

Siddiqa: The solution I’m presenting with Polluters Out is that the UNFCCC and the host countries sign a conflict-of-interest agreement and promise to eliminate fossil fuel influence from future COPs. That means no lobbying, no sponsorship, no special treatment. 

Some people think that’s a lot to ask, but it has been done before. In fact, we’re following the precedent that the World Health Organization set when it removed Big Tobacco from all of its conferences. There was a time when Big Tobacco was one of the most powerful interests in the world. The World Health Organization prohibited any members of the tobacco industry from attending annual summits. Our culture around how we perceive tobacco today has changed immensely. They have been forced to put ads on every cigarette pack, warning of the health damages. It allowed for a lot more lawsuits, and massive taxation on cigarettes. 

So, if the World Health Organization could do that with tobacco, the UNFCCC can do it with fossil fuels. It is not only achievable, it is absolutely necessary.

Olano: Have you seen any progress toward this goal? How has your message been received?

Siddiqa: We started Polluters Out in 2019, and I think there has been an important shift since then. For COP26 specifically, BP was meant to be a sponsor and have a speaking role at a COP event, but it was canceled because BP’s goals did not align with net-zero plans. So BP is no longer a sponsor. And I attribute this completely to civil society, and in particular youth activism. There’s been a collective acknowledgment, especially from within the U.K., that this is not going to be tolerated. 

So yes, things are slowly changing, but I wish that there was a piece of paper that binds them, so there would be real repercussions, which is something that the U.N. needs to establish immediately.

Olano: How are you feeling about COP26?

Siddiqa: I’m feeling really overwhelmed at the inequity that this COP will enable. It is one of the whitest and least diverse COPs we have seen. Prices are through the roof for everything, from plane tickets to taxis to hotels. It is criminal how much Airbnbs are charging. It’s not affordable, especially for people from the Global South. No person making a middle-class wage in rupees can afford a hotel room for a night. 

So inequity is huge, and that’s frustrating when they want to talk about climate justice. I’ve spent half my paycheck for a flight to Glasgow, and I live in the U.S.

The other huge issue is vaccine apartheid. They’re only accepting certain vaccines, and those vaccines are predominantly in European nations and the U.S. because other countries did not have the patents to make them. COP promised some activists and NGOs from the Global South that they were going to give them money to get their vaccines, but they didn’t. So people who don’t have the right vaccine or who can’t get a visa are being left out. There’s just absolute frustration from the Black and Brown and Indigenous people who are attending. 

Olano: What is lost when groups of people are left out of the rooms where these big decisions are being made?

Siddiqa: The most famous number to come out of Paris was 1.5, and people today collectively understand that 1.5 degrees is the place that we want to stay under or maintain. Achieving that number in those negotiations was a result of the island nations and frontline communities who pushed hard for that to be in the treaty text. It was a result of them laying down the rule because they said at 1.5 their countries would be flooded. So without the island nations’ delegations, we would not have that number. 

Something I often hear is, I don’t care if you’re Black, Brown or blue, we just need to solve the climate crisis.” But yes, it does matter. The knowledge that frontline communities have is extremely valuable: They live climate impacts first-hand, and you need those voices because that’s knowledge. With Indigenous peoples as well, it goes beyond representation. They are the protectors of the land, they have ancient knowledge that is necessary to solve this crisis. So what is lost is testimony and at the root empirical evidence, which are absolutely necessary to combat the climate crisis.

Olano: With the big caveats of everything you have just laid out, what are some of the things you’re hoping to get done at COP

Siddiqa: One of my biggest motivations to attend COP is to meet my friends from around the world who are climate activists and who have been working with me for years on this fight. I genuinely believe that all of the changes that have been made in the past few years are a result of all their work, and when minds come together, amazing things can happen. And then the other thing is, I hope that [UNFCCC Executive] Secretary Patricia Espinosa and the nations come together and say we’re going to develop a conflict-of-interest policy because Polluters Out is not the only group calling for that; major groups and coalitions are also calling for the same. 

I am also eager to look some of these policymakers in the eye and ask them the questions that have been burning in my brain for years and try to get some answers or accountability there. 

Olano: You were an organizer of a recent direct action at the TED Countdown event, where activist Lauren MacDonald famously admonished the Shell CEO while they shared the same stage, and then you all staged a walkout. Were you surprised at the response and attention that got around the world?

Siddiqa: Forget about around the world; the immediate response from even the organizers at the event was one of gratitude and support. The staff who had helped put on the show congratulated us; they thanked us. But beyond that, the attention was shocking. It became the main talking point of this event, which would have otherwise maybe not gotten as much news coverage. 

And I’m so grateful that we had support from everywhere, from Canada to India to Uganda, so many people immediately jumped on to help amplify our message. That’s the thing about the youth climate movement: We are incredibly connected and so supportive. I am lucky to know these people. 

Olano: What things are you most excited about in your work beyond COP? What’s next for you?

Siddiqa: There’s a lot of hope, and there’s a lot of support, which is only growing. There are so many people rooting for us, especially older folks. I got to have a wonderful conversation with Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, and she was so supportive and encouraging. Al Gore as well; he changed his speech at the TED event after he saw what we did and has been receptive to our message. 

What am I excited for? I think that there is a shift among people who hold power and older folks, which affirms the work we are doing. We’re doing the right thing and we’re on the right path. And much of this work needs radical hope and almost a little bit of irrationality to keep going because everything else is against us. So these little victories actually help me keep going. 

I’m excited to see what the youth does at COP. I will be speaking there. The last time we made this much noise, back in 2019, it had profound impacts. We set the bar high, so we have to show up again. 

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial and research associate at Canary Media.